Nursing Lifestyle

When the Doctor Is the Bully

Bullying in the healthcare industry is a lot more common than you think. Here's what you should do if the bully is the doctor.

The word bully often conjures-up images of the tough kid towering over a smaller more vulnerable child in the schoolyard. Being bullied is something that many attach to a part of growing up and being a child.  The perception is that bullies are not something that adults have to deal with.  That perception, however, is false. Sadly, bullies exist everywhere and some may have a bigger impact than making someone feel small and helpless. 

Bullying is defined as using superior strength or influence to intimidate someone, typically forcing them to do what the bully wants. With that definition in mind, think about what would happen if the bully in question is actually your doctor or your boss? What kind of implications could that mean for your health? 

Bullying in the workplace is a real thing and can have some serious adverse effects on its victims.  Bullying in healthcare is even more common - as many as half of a hospital staff could easily report to witnessing bullying or being victims themselves. If bullying is that prevalent in the medical field, just imagine how many of its victims are actual patients who feel that they are being bullied by caregivers? 

Bullying can be classified into three different types:

  1. Personal Bullying:  This is where the victim is subject to insults or offensive remarks about their personal life, gender, habits, culture or their background.
  2. Workplace bullying: This is when intimidation is used in the workplace to prevent someone from taking holidays or sick days or to get someone to do the work of another.
  3. Personal intimation: This is when the victim is threatened with physical violence or abuse. It can quickly escalate to actual violence.

What are the consequences of bullying?

It would probably be impossible to list every single consequence that comes from bullying.  There are, however, some major impacts that bullying can have on a person. Workplace bullying, for example, when a senior member of a hospital staff uses their title and role to intimidate new residence, can lead to:

  • Anxiety about going to work, performing well on the job, the realization that they made a mistake
  • Depression caused by the feeling of self-loathing after being told that they are ‘not good at their job’
  • Drug abuse can be the result of someone trying to find an ‘escape’ from the bullying through drugs and alcohol
  • Physical and mental burnout
  • In some extreme cases, suicide

A sick patient who feels that they are being bullied by their doctor can find themselves even sicker than when they started. That’s because this kind of bullying can lead to:

  • Lack of communication between doctor and patient. A patient who feels they are being bullied will not openly talk about their symptoms and other health-related issues if they are afraid of being ridiculed by their doctor.
  • Over or under treatment. Again this comes from a lack of communication between doctor and patient. 
  • Extreme stress leading to other medical problems
  • Depression and anxiety

In other words, a patient who is bullied by their doctor will not get the quality of care that they deserve or they need to battle their illness.

The red flags

If a patient or their loved ones suspect that they may be bullied by their doctor - there are a few red flags to look out for. If the doctor is exhibiting any of these behaviors or worse, all of them, then chances are they are a bully:

  • Not answering questions or providing inadequate information about the condition or issue in question. All doctors should understand the importance for a patient to fully understand what is going on with them and should always be willing to answer any and all questions. A doctor who refuses to clarify because they expect their patients to take what is being said to them at face value - in other words - “I’m the doctor and what I say goes” type of attitude - is bullying their patient
  • Using scare tactics and intimidations so that patients undergo examinations and procedures without fully understanding what they are and what they are for. Patients have the right to refuse anything that they are not comfortable with - it may be because of religious or cultural beliefs or it may be because they have decided to seek another form of treatment. Doctors can disagree, but if they trick a patient or scare them into something that they are not comfortable with, that is considered bullying
  • It takes years of school, training and hard work to become a doctor. It’s not for the faint of heart and truly takes a special person to commit to helping others. It’s easy to admire doctors and other medical professionals but, be wary of a doctor who expects to be admired by all. If your doctor is arrogant to the point of being self-righteous, they could be labeled a bully. Especially if their behaviors interfere with the care of their patients.
  • Bedside manner has a different definition for everyone. Not everyone is capable of displaying the warm and fuzzy attitude all the time. A doctor who does not care about their patients' feelings or doesn’t notice when someone is upset could be labeled a bully. This is especially true if the doctor also lacks patience when their patients are displaying emotions in the face of their illness
  • Doctors who have no respect for their patients' privacy or who are rough with their patients - either physically or verbally, is considered to be a bully. If at any time a patient feels uncomfortable with their doctor's behavior it should be flagged. If after it is brought to their attention and the behavior does not change or the doctor does not show any kind of empathy towards their patient, then chances are, they are a bully.
  • Patients should pay attention to how the doctor treats others.  If a doctor treats their staff poorly - especially in front of other people, they could be labeled a bully.  It’s important that doctors show everyone respect - whether it’s towards their staff, their patients or the doorman.  Respect goes a long way toward showcasing someone’s good side rather than they're bad.

Remember everyone is human

Before patients start labeling their doctor as a bully, it’s important that they take a step back and look at the big picture. First of all, everyone is human, and humans - doesn’t matter who they are - can have bad days. While having a bad day is not an excuse for bad behavior, it’s something to consider, especially if the outburst is out of the blue and not considered to be regular behavior. 

Doctors also have to work under a lot of stress. Before slapping the bully label on them, remember that they may be coming from a trauma or perhaps they have just lost a long-term patient. Doctors also have to deal with trying patients and may even be dealing with being bullied themselves. One bad day, episode or snarky comment does not make a bully.

If a patient or their loved ones feel that they may be being bullied by their doctor, it’s very important not to ignore the behavior. Don’t put the medical care at risk. Instead, follow these steps:

  1. Talk to the doctor about their behavior, they may not even be aware that they are coming off a certain way. 
  2. If talking to the doctor does not change how they act, consider taking the situation to a superior. 
  3. Finally, if the doctor continues to display bullish behavior towards their patients, it may be time to find a new doctor.
  4. Report the doctor to a licensing board. If one patient is being bullied, chances are many others are as well

To patients, or even nurses, who may be in this situation, don’t let a bully doctor dictate how you will be treated. Remember that just because they are an expert in their field, they do not have the right to be a bully to anyone. Doctor or not.